Central Park in NYC

A child visits the Alice in Wonderland statue near the Conservatory Water in Manhattan. (Tribune Co. photo)

Must-see sites

Taking the kids to the Big Apple may seem like a daunting task, but New York is actually one of America's best cities for a family vacation. Almost every child knows something about New York from movies, books and television. This familiarity breeds a sense of excitement when seeing familiar popular media (see American Natural History Museum below).

New York is also great for kids because of the sheer number and variety of things they can do: museums and zoos, statues and skyscrapers, parks and beaches, boats and trains, big league sports teams and Broadway plays. You could vacation here for months and still not see everything. Given the great subway system and all those taxies – and a grid pattern that makes it hard to get lost – the city is easy to get around with kids.

Top Attractions

American Museum of Natural History
Even the most jaded kids are electrified by this treasure chest of nature, which also includes the Hayden Planetarium and an IMAX theater. Design your visit around "A Night at the Museum" scavenger hunt in which the kids try to find characters from the Adam Sandler movie – from Teddy Roosevelt on his horse out front and the Pocahontas look-alike in the Plains Indians gallery to "Rex" the dinosaur and "Dum Dum" the Easter Island tiki. The food court in the basement is a great place for lunch. Your family can avoid the lines by purchasing and printing your tickets online beforehand (www.amnh.com); however, there is an additional $4 added on to the suggested admission prices when buying online. Suggested admission is $15 for adults, $8.50 for children ages 2-12, $11 for students and $11 for seniors.

Bronx Zoo
Founded in 1899 and home base of the esteemed Wildlife Conservation Society, this zoo endures as one of the globe's great animal collections. It is known for enclosures that mimic the natural habitat of the wildlife. There are half a dozen highlights, including the Congo Gorilla Forest with its rambunctious simians, the monorail ride through the Wild Asia exhibit, the brand new Madagascar House with its leaping lemurs, and the World of Darkness for a close-up glimpse of nocturnal creatures. If there's one downside, it's the fact that several of the top attractions charge separate admission prices on top of what you pay to get into the zoo. Adults pay $15, and children pay $11 for general admission. A great deal now offered is a Total Experience ticket, priced at $27 for adults, $21 for kids (ages 3-12) and $23 for seniors, which pays for general admission along with seven admissions to the zoo's special rides and attractions.

Central Park
The prototype big city park offers dozens of different ways to entertain kids, from something as simple as watching the squirrels to epic outdoor performances on the Great Lawn by the New York Philharmonic or al fresco Shakespeare at the Delacorte Theatre. Another top draw is the small but excellent Central Park Zoo and the adjacent Tisch Children's Zoo with its "hands-on" animals. The famous Wollman Rink, now owned by Donald Trump, offers ice skating in winter and rollerblading the rest of the year. One of the newest attractions is tethered hot-air balloon rides high above the park (July and August only). Kids and parents who want to test their skills on the park's various sports fields and ball courts can pick up a free "Discovery Day" kit with balls, bats, Frisbees etc at the North Meadow Recreation Center. A major plus of this attraction is the price – it's free to see these outdoor performances, and it's also free to go squirrel-watching.

Statue of Liberty
America's most famous lady keeps a watchful eye over New York Harbor, and you can visit her one of two ways: take a nonstop boat tour that cruises around Liberty Island, or take the National Park Service ferry from Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan. There is no entrance fee to the island and statue, but the ferry runs $12 for adults, $5 for children (ages 4-12) and $10 for seniors. Reservations are highly recommended, especially on weekends, holidays and in between the months of May and September (www.statuecruises.com). Since 9/11, only the museum gallery and pedestal observation level have been open to visitors, but there is now talk of reopening the high-altitude crown observation area.

Empire State Building
Children may not appreciate the classic Art Deco lobby or that the exterior is clad in Indiana limestone, but they'll be blown away by a view that can take in as many as five states with one sweep of your head. The building, created in 1931 and reaching 1,250 feet, according to about.com, is no longer the world's tallest building; however, it remains one of the most famous. From the classic black-and-white version of King Kong (filmed right after the building first opened) to the tear-jerking finale of Sleepless in Seattle, the "ESB" has appeared in nearly a hundred films. The New York Skyride on the second floor is a new virtual reality adventure tour of New York that "launches" from the top of the Empire State.

Times Square
Really more a triangle than a square, New York's legendary gathering place is awesome by day or night (when it becomes a neon canyon). This is the heart of the city's theatre district, and there's always something child-friendly on the stage bill from all-time favorites like The Lion King and Wicked to newer musicals like Legally Blonde and Mary Poppins. The discount ticket kiosk is located on the "island" in the middle of Times Square (day of performance tickets only). Other attractions around the edge of the square include the giant Toys R Us store, the glass-fronted MTV TRL studio, and the forever hopping ESPN Zone.

Metropolitan Museum of Art
This may be one of the world's great art collections, but it's often a tough slog with kids, especially those who don't have a natural interest in artistic works. If you have young kids, it is better to skip the Old Masters and head straight for the knights in shining armor, the reconstructed Egyptian temple and the modern pop art. A new addition to the Met includes "museumkids," which has programs for families and young kids, including "Learn about Color," "The Dancers and Degas" and "Childe Hassam, American Impressionist." The Met now has podcasts available on its website (www.metmuseum.org).

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